So You Want To: Write A Romance Sidequest
A Romance Sidequest is an optional Romance Arc in a video game between a Player Character and an NPC, which presents a unique set of challenges and considerations for a video game writer. This guide will help you tackle them. It is recommended that you also read Write A Story, Write A Video Game, Write a Love Story, Make Interesting Characters, Develop Character Personality, and possibly Write A Sex Scene.
Necessary TropesYou will inevitably need following tropes:
- Player Character meets NPC: A romance sidequest usually plays out between the player's in-game avatar and one of the game's original non-player characters (often, but not always, a Non-Player Companion). Romance between NPCs falls under either a linear Romance Arc or a Match Maker Quest, depending on how much impact the player has on them.
- Side Quest (supertrope): A Romance Sidequest is, by definition, an optional and secondary storyline, so don't force the players into a romantic relationship when all they want is just to follow the main story. For advice on games where romance is the main story, see Write A Dating Sim instead.
- Love Interests: Your game should feature multiple memorable NPCs (at least one of every gender) who may become interested in shagging the PC. Whether they actively compete for the latter's attention or only reciprocate romantic interest if courted is another story.
Choices, ChoicesFollowing questions concern mostly the narrative and the romance's place in it:
- How many potential Love Interests (LI) will you have in your game? Keep in mind that making an NPC a love interest doubles the amount of writing required (the romantic dialogue goes on top of the regular, non-romance dialogue), so as tempting as it may be, don't try to bite off more than you can realistically chew.
- Do the LIs fall under a specific ensemble type? Establishing an ensemble dynamic early in the writing process lays out the groundwork for more in-depth characterization later, while ensuring that the game covers a wide enough range of romantic options for most players to find their heartthrob in it. Popular LI ensembles include: Betty and Veronica, Noble Male, Roguish Male, The Three Faces of Eve, The Three Faces of Adam, and Four-Temperament Ensemble.
- What is the gender distribution among the LIs? If the PC is a Featureless Protagonist (i.e. their gender is up to the players), then a Gender-Equal Ensemble is strongly advisable. If the PC's gender is fixed, the answer depends mostly on the next question:
- What are the individual LIs' sexual preferences? Are male LIs only attracted to a female PC, and vice versa, or is there a Gay Option or two? Or maybe Everyone Is Bi (or homosexual) to begin with? Or a mixed case, where the entire Kinsey Scale of Tropes is represented? Are crossdressing or otherwise non-gender-conforming LIs involved? In either case, what does the in-game society have to say about the sexual norms and deviations and how does it affect the relationships?
- What happens if the PC courts several LIs at once? Does it result in a Love Triangle that eventually has to be resolved in favor of one LI, dumping the other(s), or can it be turned into a polyamorous relationship? Note that it is hard enough to keep track of variables in a two-person relationship arc, but adding more characters to the mix blows up the complexity so much, it can easily grow out of sensible proportion to the rest of the game.
- Is an Optional Sexual Encounter a culmination of the romance arc, a sign of a Relationship Upgrade, or an early stepping stone that doesn't mean much to the LI? It's a good idea to mix these up among the available LIs. While pondering that question, watch this particular episode of Jimquisition on the topic to gain a bit of a perspective.
- How much agency does an LI have in the relationship? To come across as real human beings, characters need motivations and flaws that are outside of the player's control—i.e. an LI should also try to have influence on the relationship (for better or worse), rather than being a passive receptacle of the player's decisions. For instance, will a certain kind of LI cheat on the PC; (try to) leave the PC under certain circumstances, regardless of prior relationship; or do something dangerous or outright stupid to impress or protect the PC?
- How much agency do the LIs have outside of relationships with a PC? Will those of them who seek a relationship but are rebuked by the PC find love on their own (perhaps, among themselves)? If so, can the PC play the match maker here?
- How much do you gamify the Romance Arc? Of course, human relationships are not about Scoring Points and Event Flags, but you are making a video game, so try to find a healthy balance between the two extremes. For instance, do you tie the quest progression to Relationship Values, or implement gameplay consequences to losing an LI's trust or gaining their Undying Loyalty?
- On that same note, consider scenarios where the player could potentially fail a romance arc if a wrong course of action is taken. Without any challenge, after all, there likely wouldn't be as much emotional investment on the player's part.
- Shallow Love Interest: Don't write NPCs whose only distinctive trait is that they are romanceable and whose only role is to be a love interest. When you get down to it, all romance is about how two people's personalities interact; as such, "personality" is a prerequisite for any kind of Romance Arc. As such, your LIs should have character, and Character Development, whether or not they are romanced. Let the players fall in love with that character first and give them a chance to express those feelings later; even if they do not, let them experience the character's personal story arc without any amorous baggage. (Maybe it'll change the player's mind!)
- World's Most Beautiful Woman (or Handsome Man): pinning down the physical appearance of a LI can seem difficult... but only if you overthink it. A character's personality dictates a lot about their attractiveness, and the right mix of traits will help a character charm the pants off of just about anyone, regardless of what said character looks like. Case in point: Action Girl Ashley Williams (no relation) was a Love Interest in Mass Effect 1, but Put on a Bus in 2. For her return in 3, both as party member and love interest, she was given an Adrenaline Makeover, gaining a skin-tight Custom Uniform, Letting Her Hair Down and magically developing larger boobs. She moved, in short, towards being conventionally attractive, and some fans appreciated it. But some were largely indifferent; and some actually decried it as an Unnecessary Makeover, satisfied with the Prim and Proper Bun and white-and-pink armor she had in the first game.
- More Friends, More Benefits: This particular gameplay implementation of Polyamory can fly under the radar in a mechanics-oriented game, but in a narrative-driven one, it always has that distinct jarring taste of Unfortunate Implications about the characters involved and human relationships in general. Don't do it if you intend the story to be more than just flavor.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- The Power of Love and The Power of Trust are always good options in a love story, and a Romance Sidequest is no exception.
- Have the PC and the LI go on a date together away from the rest of the Player Party, only to be ambushed by their enemies and to have to fight for their lives back-to-back, Battle Couple-style. If things go really bad, the LI may even attempt to give their life to save the PC.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- If the romance arc involves a Wedding Day at any point, a pair of wedding rings or whatever equivalents they have in your game's setting may be added as unique items restricted to the newlyweds.
- After a Relationship Upgrade or completing the romance arc, special gear or clothing that symbolizes the characters' new relationship may become available to them.
- Variation is key. Consider the various Ensemble Tropes mentioned above; for instance, Dragon Age: Origins has Leliana and Morrigan, as well as Alistair and Zevran.
Stunt DepartmentRemember that part about LI's doing stupid and dangerous things to impress the PC? Well, a Grand Romantic Gesture can involve any sorts of stunts.
- Dragon Age: Origins hits the perfect balance with its love interest ensemble (personality-, sexuality-, and gender-wise), while mixing up the individual arcs' formulas considerably depending on the LI's plot relevance and characterization.
- The Witcher has only two possible romance arcs but these are written into the larger plot while still remaining technically optional, and the impact it has on the characters involved is felt throughout the game.
- A Dance with Rogues weaves the romantic arcs unobtrusively into the main plot with minimal gamification thereof, and is notable for being written from an exclusively female perspective.